TCR Talks with Matthew Zapruder

By Martin Cossio

Matthew Zapruder is a poet, a teacher, an editor, a translator, and an accomplished guitar player. He is the co-translator of Romanian poet Eugen Jebeleanu’s last collection, Secret Weapon: Selected Late Poems, and editor-at-large of Wave Books (He edited Tyehimba Jess’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner, Olio). Zapruder is the author of five collections of poetry—the second of which, The Pajamaist, was selected by Tony Hoagland as the winner of the William Carlos Williams Award—and one book of prose on the art and craft of poetry. He is a professor in the MFA program at St. Mary’s College of California.

Zapruder’s newest collection, Father’s Day, was released last month by Copper Canyon Press. Unlike with his previous four collections, Zapruder was a dad when he started FD, shortly before Trump took office. In these poems, the political serves (mostly) as a backdrop for the speaker’s shifting and growing sense of responsibility. As one might imagine, the tone can be less than optimistic. Some poems are bleak, not only about the time we’re living in but the progression of time itself. Others are humorous about everyday life—doughnuts, for example—and hopeful about the future, if only for his son. Many are full of gratitude.

There’s a softness and elegant simplicity of language that invites a reader into a Zapruder poem. Have you ever looked at a word too long or pronounced a word too many times and it suddenly becomes unfamiliar? That’s what a Zapruder poem is like. Once inside, you find yourself navigating a syntactical landscape, like in a dream, one that invariably ends not with waking but trying to adjust your eyes.

The Coachella Review: The title of your newly released collection is Father’s Day. On the cover is a candid photograph of you as a boy with your dad, but in the title poem your role is reversed: you are now the dad of a son who, in a separate poem, you refer to as a “remembrancer.” How does this interplay comment on the book title?

Matthew Zapruder: I picked the photograph after the book was completed. It had lived in a frame in our house for most of my childhood, so I passed by it thousands of times. I didn’t have any good ideas for the cover, and then suddenly this picture came to mind. It was, like most of my decisions having to do with poetry, intuitive. It seemed interesting to me to have myself as a son on the cover, and a father (mostly) in the book. An implied continuity. A person’s ideas about being a father begin when one is a son.

TCR: “Father’s Day” is written from a dad’s perspective, “Graduation Day” from the vantage point of the stage, “The Poetry Reading” from the point of view of a featured poet in a hell where time drags on and yet is ultimately deemed insufficient. To what extent is Father’s Day a meditation on lifespan?

MZ: When one becomes a parent, mortality is suddenly at the forefront of everything. You spend all this time just thinking, how am I going to keep this tiny being alive. Don’t drop him! Nothing else matters. Also, because you get on infant sleep time, time is weirdly both stretched out and compressed. And the heavy happiness of having a kid makes the past completely present. Things that happened to me when I was a child influence my thinking and behavior in all sorts of new and powerful and sometimes even grotesque ways. Time starts to reveal itself as more of a swirl than an arrow. Basically what I’m saying is having a kid reveals how time is very fucked up and weird and it never seems to go back to the old way. But the truth is, before I even had a kid, I was already one of those people obsessed with time. I suffer from something I call pre-nostalgia, which is the sense while something is happening that it is already in the past, and I am already mourning its irretrievability. It’s pretty annoying and I am working on not feeling that way so I can enjoy myself more.

TCR: In “Poem on the Occasion of a Weekly Staff Meeting,” the speaker spaces out and imagines himself wielding a halberd in combat against the air. Are poets more prone to boredom than others? A rapper once said, “Poets play with words to keep themselves sane.” Do you agree?

MZ: I have a feeling that poets might make themselves more available to boredom than your average person, because that space of nothing particular happening, nothing intentionally being transmitted, leaves a space for the sort of drifty attentiveness particularly suitable for making poems.

TCR: The poems in the collection occupy a sort of dreamscape, one in which the associative movement you speak of in Why Poetry is reminiscent of lucid dreaming. Is the long, single stanza structure of most poems and lack of punctuation meant to mirror that dreamscape?

MZ: I don’t know about “mirror,” but maybe enact. I need to feel when I’m reading the poem that it’s true to the thinking experience, because that will have the best chance of creating an authentic feeling in the reader or listener. I don’t want to overmanage or constantly be putting my face into the frame, but I want to give enough guidance so the experience feels necessary. It’s a fine line for sure, and I move more or less toward overtly guiding the experience of the reader (through punctuation, or stanzas, or something else formal) depending on the state of the speaker.

TCR: Twain said, “When you catch an adjective, kill it,” meaning cut most of them so they don’t weaken each other by proximity. How do you, who’s fond of coordinate adjectives, respond?

MZ: I’m more worried about prepositions and generally fuzzy language than I am about adjectives.

TCR: Most of the poems in this collection were written after Trump’s inauguration. Some diss high profile people—Paul Ryan, Roseanne Barr. Many, however, pay homage to poets—Tate, Šalamun, Coleridge. Is this because, as you say in one, “in such hard times we grasp / for understanding poetry”?

MZ: I was interested in writing the poems “about” Ryan and Barr and some of the others in how anger, which is such a part of our culture right now, can make its way into poetry. There are not that many really angry poems, though there are some really good ones, like Dylan Thomas’s “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” (which is also an example of one of those poems that tells you exactly what’s going on). I wanted to see what would happen if I let anger drive me into the poem. What would happen next? As far as the poems for poets, the unfortunate fact is that I am getting to that age when my beloved poetry fathers and mothers are dying.

TCR: You let the reader in on a secret in “The Critic”: “most of the time / poets are not / they are bureaucrats.” This is telling, as the speaker in Father’s Day seems overburdened with responsibility, both public and private. Does that sense of civic duty have anything to do with your philosophy, “Talk as if someone’s listening”?

MZ: When I say that in “The Critic,” part of what I am reacting to is the idea that poets have their heads in the clouds all the time. Which would be nice, but in my experience is not the case. I also think on a literal level there is a lot of time in the actual making of poems when poets are counting syllables, or moving phrases around, almost as if they are bureaucrats of the imagination. Shelley famously writes that poets “are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves.”

Meaning, poets a lot of the time don’t realize exactly why what they are saying is so important, but they have an instinct for the material, how to make it incredibly powerful and moving and effective. That really rings true to me. I mean not always, but a lot of the time. Some of the best poems are written when one can get a little distance.

As for the second part of your question, talking as if someone is listening is related to civic duty, but I think it’s something more general than that. I think it’s a good idea when talking to remember that there are other people around. It makes the whole thing feel a lot more human.

TCR: The general election is only a year away. Currently, there is no shortage of candidates. Should one of them be a poet since, after all, according to Plato, poets are essentially persuasive liars, or do they, like he believed, not have a place in ideal society?

MZ: I wouldn’t wish that on a poet. Actually, one great poet, Eileen Myles did run for President, and it didn’t seem to hurt her poems at all, though I suspect winning would have.

TCR: What exactly is “the privilege of poetry”? Is it tied into the speaker’s own sense of privilege?

MZ: People talk a lot about privilege now, and it means a lot of different things. I was thinking about what a privilege it is to have the time and space to imagine, as opposed to having some exhausting menial job, or being a migrant or refugee. Even a short time in the day is an immense gift. And I was also thinking about how we should not be ashamed of that privilege or think it is something less worthy than political action. After all, without the freedom to imagine, nothing will ever change.

TCR: You seem to attract criticism on Facebook because of your authority as a poet. Has this always been the case since you created a name for yourself? Does it fuel your fire, or does it make it that much harder to be a poet in this day and age?

MZ: I think people have always talked shit about other people who are publishing or doing anything. I remember when I was a grad student, my friends and I would say the most outrageous and incorrect things about older poets. The difference was we were doing it over a few beers and no one could hear us. We had a chance to be wrong in privacy. Social media has unfortunately changed all that. Now we can hear everyone’s opinions, and I think we can see where that has gotten us. Usually when people get worked up about some stupid little thing I don’t let it bother me. And if it does, I just put on some Lizzo and learn from the master.

Martin Cossio is a poet from San Bernardino, CA. He has received an honorable mention from the Academy of American Poets and been published by Frogpond: The Journal of the Haiku Society of America, The Lyric, the oldest magazine in North America devoted to traditional forms, and Presence, Britain’s leading independent haiku journal. He is working on his first collection of poems which he will title Internal Bleeding and Bloodletting.